How Good Are These Cats

How good is this Kansas State basketball team? With the schedule played, what does a 10-1 mark mean ... really mean? Don't know ... ask again in three weeks, answers the first question.

Not much, as it was a pretty much guaranteed 9-2 to 11-0 start before the season even started, answers the second question.

With plenty of reason to say time will tell, the efforts of this 2004-2005 basketball team should be recognized.

The Wildcats are 10-1, which is an 11-game start bettered by only one other team in KSU history (1918-19) of playing the ball, hoop and net sport.

While not dominating, it's been a team that has found a way to win six of those games decided by nine points or less.

Now, can the Wildcats find the same moxie when it comes to play against Big 12 caliber competition?

Coach Jim Wooldridge says, "What the pre-conference schedule told us is that we have the capability to be a good team. We can beat people, but we have to play together and we have to play well."

Arguably, this is Wooldridge's most talented basketball team in his five seasons. If not as a starting-five, depth provided by Lance Harris outside and Justin Williams/Tyler Hughes tandem inside makes it the best seven- to eight-man rotation in recent history.

While it could be a team of the future with freshman Clent Stewart, sophomores Cartier Martin, Fred Peete and Harris, and Marques Hayden as a junior, to seniors Jeremiah Massey and Williams, the future is now.

This youth is why Wooldridge says, "We're still learning and developing into who we are and how we need to play. It's still an on-going process. I can tell you for sure that we are not a finished product. I think we can play better and that will be our goal."

At 10-1, the Wildcats have positioned themselves to challenge for a mid-Big 12 Conference finish in a sub-par talent year, by league standards.

Two shy of a normal year, only four teams from the Big 12 are receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and three of those — Oklahoma State, Texas and Oklahoma — are from the South Division, which K-State plays only once.

Also in the Wildcats favor, unlike last year when the Wildcats opened league play with four of its first five games against powers Kansas (2), Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, this year's opening slate is like it was designed by coach Wooldridge himself.

By Big 12 standards, the first six games — at home with Texas Tech, Missouri and Iowa State; on the road with Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri — is the easiest portion of the 16-game league year.

If K-State can go a minimum of 3-3/4-2, it will have positioned itself for a 17-, 19-game winning season, or the best since winning 20 in 1998-99.

More importantly, it would/could mean at least seven Big 12 wins, which as a rule, gets a team into postseason play. In the first eight years of the Big 12 Conference, only three times has a seven-game conference winner not been invited into either the NCAA or NIT.

But for that to happen, K-State must learn to win on the road where it is just 4-60 in the first eight years of Big 12 basketball. And, it must do so with a rookie point guard in Stewart, a juco shooting-guard in Peete ... and maybe starting the year with a gimped-up Massey.

Encouraging is the fact that K-State is one of the top teams in the league in assist-to-turnovers and have had its best ball movement in a number of years. But the problems are the same as past years: mediocre overall shooting and without a true threat from 3-point range.

Oh, and if Massey is out for any length of time ... yikes.

For now, Martin simply says, "It's our goal to finish in the top half of the Big 12. I think we can do that if we continue to play hard."

Wooldridge stops short of any such prediction: "I've told them that they can be a good team, so that's a goal. A second goal is to play good basketball. We'll let that provide whatever opportunity it provides. Our goal everyday is to play better basketball."

This year, that could, if not should, mean a trip into postseason play.

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